You’ve got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was. Irish Proverb
My grandfather was a tall tree; that’s how I knew him. Every night before bed when we were little kids, my siblings and I would look up at the mammoth etching of a California oak that hung on a wall at the bottom of the stairs, and we would sing, “Good night, Mr. Oak Tree!” and then we would scamper up to bed, say our prayers with our living breathing family and go to sleep.
Grandpa Haskell, my father’s father, before he turned into a tall tree, was an artist, the artist of the mammoth oak that hung on our wall. I knew this about him, from the moment that I could know such things – we all did, my siblings, our family and friends, and even strangers we would meet on the street. We knew other things too. We knew that a long, long time ago, he had bought the land that was our summer playground in coastal Maine – the old saltwater farmhouse that my cousins now lived in, the balsam and pine forest, the two coves and the Sister Point that connected them. We knew that he had built a barn and owned a cow, that he had sailed his canoe through the same seas that we now explored. And the thing that we knew the most was that he had died when his twins, our father and my Aunt Jo, were four. We knew this by heart. We knew that the year was 1925 and that it was a Model T and that he had driven this same car across the whole country just months earlier, from California all the way to Maine. We knew that he had just arranged a retrospective of his art in New York, that he was on his final stretch back to that farmhouse, just two miles from his land on the coast. We knew the very corner it had happened. We could see it. And we knew it was a tragedy. People told us it was, that our grandfather had been killed at the peak of his career.
And that’s when he became a tree, a tree that towered over us all. And it wasn’t a bad thing having a legend for a grandfather. We could puff ourselves up; after all, we were his kin. And my parents, they could trade art for all sorts of things; the etchings and watercolors and theater posters of famous actresses paid for our dental work and became trading cards for the creations of other well-known artists. But we also paid a price. It’s not the same, to hug a tree or blow a kiss to an etching. My father used to tell me that he would get teary-eyed as a little boy every time his class would sing, “land of the pilgrim’s pride; land where my father died.” He wanted a real pappy; that’s what he called his father. And he devoted a great deal of time writing articles, arranging exhibits, trying to flesh out the man who had given him the same name, Ernest Haskell. But the facts, the ones that our father uncovered, didn’t help us find our way out from under our grandfather’s tall shadow. How can you compete with a grandfather who trained himself to never erase?!? Never!!! Especially when your drawings are a little sloppy and the eraser is a handy tool. How can you compete with a grandfather who was self-taught and found his way across the sea to Paris for extended year-long stays two different times, when you’ve only been to three measly states in your whole entire little-girl life?!? How can you compete with a grandfather, who, according to family lore, chased after a mountain lion in Yosemite, back when Yosemite was pristine, and retrieved the ham-roast the lion had stolen, probably grabbing it right out of the lion’s roaring mouth?!? How can you compete with that?!? So none of us did compete. We just revered our tall-tree father/grandfather, and did our best to live in his shade.
And to live on the land that he had left for us. We did that well. After Grandpa Haskell died, our Grammie Emma, his widow, built a lodge and cabins in the woods on the hill, and she ran a summer camp when her kids were small, and, later, when the twins were in their early twenties, opened the camp up to British war refugees. And, later, still, when we, the grandkids, came along, those run-down cabins became our forts and the granite hill became our wilderness and we climbed the trees and we swam in the coves and we showered this land that our grandfather had given us with so much appreciation.
Our grandfather was a tall tree and his spirit was planted in this land that we loved. And that’s what made it so complicated, hard to untangle, this past winter, when the reverse mortgage money on our mother’s cottage used for her care was running out. We, her kids, had decisions to make. Really, it was up to me to make a decision. Would we sell this piece of the property or would I buy my siblings out? And knowing that I needed to move forward, even when my roots felt drawn to the past, I made the decision to join my siblings and sell the cottage parcel. And, in mid-February, on the very day that I e-mailed this message to brothers and sister, within minutes of pushing the “send” button, an e-mail popped up on my screen. There was going to be an exhibit, the first in thirty-five years, of our grandfather’s art, at the Mead Museum at Amherst College in Massachusetts, How He Was To His Talents: The Work of Ernest Haskell and the opening was scheduled for late March, and I knew right off that I was going to attend. My grandfather was speaking to me. And he began to feel more real.
My cousin, Abby, the youngest daughter of my father’s twin, joined me. I flew in from Michigan, Abby rode the bus from New York City and we met on a lovely spring afternoon on the campus of Amherst College. And together, we walked into the museum, and, together, we met the young woman who had made this exhibit possible. Her name was Katrina Greene, an Andrew W. Mellon Post-Baccalaureate Curatorial Fellow, and our grandfather became her project and then he became her mentor and then he became her friend. And, this young woman, as she spoke at the show’s opening of our grandfather, the artist, of his skill and ceaseless drive to acquire new knowledge, of his boundless enthusiasm and support for other artists, and the way he stretched the limits in medium after medium without formal training, she began to put flesh back onto his bones. Abby and I stood there as photos of our grandfather and his family, our toddler twin parents, flashed onto a screen. We pieced together facts that we’d never heard. We admired his work. We admired him as an artist. We thought that he would be a good friend. And after forty-five minutes of speaking, she got to the part that had been the defining story for our family, the car crash that had turned our grandfather into a tall tree of a legend, and Abby and I held hands, and, then, in mere seconds, it was over; it was over, just a blip on the map of a remarkable life. And Katrina moved on. She ended her talk, not with the tragedy that we knew so well, but with an exuberant wide-skied cloud-filled etching of coastal Maine and a poem that our grandfather had written, a lovely expansive poem entitled, the Eternal Song. And Abby and I left the museum, hand in hand, breathing it all in – it was as if we had just attended our grandfather’s memorial service, a life-affirming celebration for a real person.
And that night, as I lay in the bed at my Amherst motel, with the book that Katrina had written about Grandpa lying across my middle, too exhausted to get undressed or read any words, it donned on me, in a bright light sort of way, that I am surrounded by brightly-lit up people, that we’re all talented and unique and beyond comparison. It donned on me that if Grandpa was my friend or my living breathing relative, I would admire him for his skill and admire him even more for the way he carved out an artist’s life, truly lived his passion, but, in no way, would I have him on a pedestal, in no way would I grant him the power to shadow my light. He was six foot two, a tall strong man, and I’ve heard that his light was exuberant and buoyant and bright, and I celebrate this. So my grandfather is no longer a tree; he is a bright light. And I bask in his bright light, and I bask in my own. And I bask in the bright light of family and friends and strangers who I haven’t even met. My siblings, who also have lived in our grandfather’s shadow are immensely talented people. My older brother builds boats, elegant wooden boats, the way they have been built for generations in the fishing village near the land that our grandfather left for us. My sister throws pots on a wheel, enchanted delicate pots in the deepest of colors, and has a heart big enough to hold the whole world. And my younger brother named after his grandfather and his father has made the raising of a family into the highest form of art, something our grandfather didn’t live long enough to accomplish. They each blaze brightly and I celebrate this.
I was thinking about my grandfather, six days later, while walking home from Joy Center, on the brightest star-lit night. I had just shared stories and poems in a performance entitled, Helen in Hollywood. And I had stood there on my own Hollywood star (made from bright yellow laminated paper), in front of the Joy Center audience, boldly proclaiming that we are all stars of our lives. I was thinking about how fun it had been to stand on my own star, how fun it had been to be “center stage” of my own brilliant out-of-the-shadows life. I was thinking about Grandpa and sensing that this is what he would want for me, not to hold onto the past, to cling to the land or the legends, not to hide in his shadow, but to shine brightly in my own Helen sort of way, to use erasers if I want to, and color outside the lines. I was thinking about all of this and breathing in the melting-snow-air when I looked up as I often do on my evening walks home from Joy Center, at all the stars, so many that you couldn’t possibly contain them, and when I looked up, I couldn’t believe it, but it’s really true, there he was, winking back at me I think, his own star-self, streaking, streaking with a blazing bright buoyant tail across that star-lit sky.